Instant Messaging

From MissionTechWiki

Instant messaging, or IM is a useful tool for text-based communication that is more "Real-Time" than e-mail. Instant messaging is more analogous to a conversation whereas typical e-mail is correspondence. There are several dominant chat networks, and any number of clients that can be used on those networks. Each has various benefits and detractors, but the most important facet of any IM service is the people on that service.




AOL Instant Messenger

AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, is the most popular IM service in North America. It has nearly 100% penetration among college groups and has further proliferated through easy transmission to cell phones as either text messages or dedicated data service. AIM is by far the most popular service provided by AOL, and they derive revenue from the service by pushing advertising through the AIM client. These ads can often be annoying and feature full-motion video and sound, and even deliver spyware, though all of this can be circumvented by using a different client.

Technical Details

AIM based upon a modified, simpler version of the OSCAR protocol, which makes it very geared towards text-based communication and less flexible for add-ons such as voice and video. The implementation of the protocol does not require that a user have permission from the person they wish to contact before initiating a conversation, though this can be changed from within the client settings. AIM conversations can contain basic formatting such as bold, italic, underline, text size, and coloring. Additionally, AIM can be used to transfer files, although this sometimes doesn't work in scenarios involving NAT.


Yahoo, like AIM, is an advertisement-supported chat service that, while not dominant, has a strong presence in European, Asian, and North American markets. Many users who became reliant on their Yahoo mail accounts naturally progressed to using Yahoo Messenger. Due to association with normal Yahoo accounts, it is tightly integrated with services revolving around the Yahoo ID, such as Yahoo groups and Flickr, which is now owned by Yahoo.

Technical Details

The proprietary protocol that Yahoo uses is a bit more add-on service friendly. Yahoo's voice communication is very usable and fairly simple to use, and the file-transfer protocol supports files of up to 1GB. Recently, Yahoo and Microsoft came to an agreement to allow interoperability between Yahoo and MSN. This simplifies accounts and keeping buddies between services.

MSN Messenger/Windows Live Messenger

MSN Messenger, or the new implementation, Windows Live messenger, is Microsoft's offering into the instant messaging market. Penetration is very strong thanks to packaging with Windows operating systems, making MSN the dominant IM service in Europe and South America, with a strong presence across the globe.

Technical Details

MSN Messenger uses the proprietary Microsoft Notification Protocol. The protocol allows for file transfer, games, and even full-screen video and voice communication. Microsoft keeps the service very Windows-focused, with users of other operating systems with limited clients and little official support.


Jabber, or Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP), is an open, decentralized, and very extensible protocol for instant messaging. Jabber is often deployed within organizations to facilitate collaboration, and can operate entirely independent of the internet. Jabber servers are able to communicate with one another, allowing users of one Jabber server to communicate with users of another Jabber server in completely different organizations. Many users register an account at [], which allows them to communicate with anyone else with an account at as well as with users of any other Jabber server that is connected to the internet.

Technical Details

Jabber's protocol is completely open and is built to be extended and added on to. Existing extensions allow for multi-user chat, VOIP, file transfer, and more. The protocol is very friendly to users who log in from multiple locations and devices. Messages can be sent either to specific sessions (for instance, home, office, or mobile) or to the most recently active or highest priority session. Additionally, the Jabber server enables messages to be transported to entirely different protocols like e-mail or SMS. This dramatically increases the options for connecting to a Jabber server, enabling any phone capable of text messaging and any computer with e-mail access to participate in Jabber sessions.


Service-agnostic Clients

Most chat services provide their own client specifically built for the service. These clients tend to be where the revenue for the service is derived, typically by advertising through the client. These clients are often abandoned due to the annoyance due to advertisements, as well as being limited in features and limited to a single protocol. The clients below allow for connection to multiple networks simultaneously, and are generally richer in features than the single-service clients.


The Pidgin client, formerly Gaim, is the most popular alternative client. It is open source, cross platform, and very flexible, connecting to virtually all IM protocols. Additionally, it has strong community support, which has given birth to additional plugins that enhance both the client itself as well as the protocols used. One of the most useful of these plugins is called Off-the-Record Messaging, which allows for very secure instant messaging over any protocol supported by Pidgin.



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